Thursday, April 7, 2011

"The Only Thing Grassroots Is The Lawn Outside The Building"

This last Saturday, while most normal people did things like ride bikes, go shopping, or play ball with their kids, my husband and I trudged down to the Torrance airport to vote in the California Democratic Party CA-36 Endorsement Caucus. While this may sound like a condition best treated with penicillin, it was instead another milestone on the way to the May 17th special election to chose a new representative for our Congressional District.

At stake was the official endorsement of the CDP. Or, as I like to call it, "The Coveted CDP Door Thingee",  because if you're a registered Democrat in the district, some helpful soul will hang a brochure on your front door before election day listing official CDP endorsements.

Debra Bowen, Janice Hahn, Marcy Winograd and a fourth candidate who'd just registered the week before, Dan Adler, were all in competition for the Coveted CDP Door Thingee. And as predicted, all left that day empty handed - no single candidate had the 60% needed to snag it.

Yet, less than 15 minutes after the vote was tallied, a press release popped up on my iPhone from Janice Hahn's campaign manager. The lede, "Hahn Secures Majority Vote of Party Faithful; Vote Solidifies Hahn as Grassroots Choice for Congress"

The first part of that statement was absolutely correct. Janice Hahn received more caucus votes than any other candidate in the room that day. Hahn got 65 votes, Bowen, 46, and Winograd, 2.

The second, grass-rootsy part?

Um, not so much.

I know the words "caucus endorsement vote" sounds like a quaint exercise in democracy, conjuring up Norman Rockwell images of citizen-delegates thoughtfully debating the merits of the respective candidates and casting their votes for the one they think will best represent the district. In reality though, the endorsement process is an exercise in back-room deals and hard-ball machine politics, the outcome mostly preordained, with delegates appointed, strong-armed, and horse-traded like baseball cards.

In other words, it's everything voters hate about politics. As one election observer remarked after reading Hahn's email, "The only thing grassroots about it was the lawn outside the building."

More on the sausage-making below the fold.


We are about to get deep in the weeds. There's a better than 50% chance you'll read this and think, "Wow, that's 10 minutes of my life I'll never get back." 

Don't say I didn't warn you. Here we go..........

In a "normal" endorsement caucus for state assembly, state senate, or congressional election, the caucus is made up of roughly 30-60 delegates (depending on what election you're talking about). 

The delegates are roughly split between those elected by popular vote (as I was), appointed by the CDP County Committee, or appointed by elected politicians.

Saturday's caucus had a 114 delegates who voted. 

Where the hell did they all come from? In a quirk of CDP caucus rules, elected officials from outside the district are allowed to appoint some of their delegates to vote in other district caucuses. It's unusual, but not unheard of. 

You don't have to look much farther than Janice Hahn's endorsement list to see where most of those delegates came from.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressmembers Karen Bass, Xavier Baccerra, Laura Richardson, Loretta Sanchez, State Senator Kevin de Leon, Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Warren Furutani, Bonnie Lowenthal, Alex Padilla, and John Perez were among the politicians out of our district who appointed their delegates to Janice Hahn. 

Even death was no obstacle for a politician to appoint delegates. Jenny Oropeza, our state senator who passed last fall, had four. 

Bowen's campaign, knowing Hahn was aggressively seeking delegates from outside the district, brought in their own delegates from Congresswoman Judy Chu, and State Senators Fran Pavely and Alan Lowenthal.

In total, a whopping 68 of the 114 delegates who voted that day were assigned by politicians from outside our district. 46 of those, more than two-thirds, voted for Janice Hahn. 


Politically appointed delegates (who all must live in the district even if the politicians themselves don't have to), are selected to vote a for a specific candidate. But human nature being what it is, nothing is left to chance, and so campaigns hire political consultants to keep them in line. For weeks beforehand, delegates are called, cajoled, pressured and called some more. Janice Hahn even showed up unannounced on the doorstep of several delegates, hoping to turn their vote. 

By Saturday, with all but a tiny handful of delegates properly herded, the caucus took on a carnival atmosphere, with delegates having to navigate through a gauntlet of Hahn signs and volunteers before voting. 

If you were a delegate thought to be a "soft" vote, God help you. I witnessed Hahn supporters swarm a delegate who had briefly switched their vote to Hahn, but who showed up that morning wearing a Bowen sticker. One particularly enthusiastic Hahn delegate even stood in the doorway of the caucus room and wouldn't let the delegate through until other Bowen delegates intervened. 

I saw Hahn and at least two of her campaign people stationed next to the ballot box, watching voters as they deposited their ballots in a red folder. 

While some delegates kept their sense of humor about the whole thing, many others were uncomfortable, and some of the veteran partisans in the room I talked with were taken aback by the rancor. 

In the end, the Hahn campaign utilized every tool at their disposal, they were in it to win it. The Bowen campaign did what they had to in order to block the endorsement. I begrudge neither of them the effort.

The Coveted CDP Door Thingee would remain just out of reach. 


So what does this all mean? 

Hahn's campaign failed to win the endorsement, but that didn't stop them from claiming the vote a "game-changer", the race all but over, their victory a "grassroots" landslide.  

However, when you strip away all the back-room deals, hard-ball politics, and horse-trading, the picture you're left with is very different. 

Instead of 114 delegates from all over the state, you get 46 delegates. Local delegates.  Either elected by their neighbors, appointed by the county committee, or by local elected officials.  

Out of those 46, Hahn got 22 votes, Bowen 21, Winograd 2, and one delegate voted not to endorse anyone. 

This vote, in fact, closely parallels polling both the Hahn and Bowen campaigns have publicly released, which puts the candidates within just a few points of one another.

No games were changed. Victory that day was an elusive one, confined to a tiny room at the Torrance Municipal Airport.  And the only thing grassroots was the lawn outside the building.

The real election will be May 17th. That, dear readers, will tell the tale.

(Full disclosure - I have endorsed Debra Bowen in this race. I voted for her in this endorsement caucus.)


  1. you can definitely get your wonk on, bigtime.......

  2. I'm sharing this with the new delegates I know.

  3. Good idea. If nothing else, this meeting points up how badly we need to reform the system. Gaming the vote like this completely negates the reason for having local endorsements. It's a sham.

  4. Marta, you must have missed the pre-endorsement caucus for primary 2010 in Region 17. Saturday was nothing compared to that.

  5. Just an FYI for all the new delegates in CD 36, this is part of the state party process, if you have questions about how it works, please contact our Regional Director, Sergio Carrillo. He can explain how the Party process works for all the races in the area, Region 17 includes
    Region 17 Assembly Districts 50, 53, 54, 55. You can contact Sergio at This is Angela Brau writing, btw, the 150_to_go refers to how much weight I am trying to lose!

  6. 150 - I heard about it. I was dealing with my parent's health issues at the time and couldn't participate. Man, nobody can't organize a circular firing squad better than Democrats.

  7. And there was more stuff going on. As a new delegate and a lifelong Democrat, I'd really like to see us get our act together - in CA and nationally! We are better than this. Reform is needed! We are the better party! Let's do it!